A sermon preached at St. Stephen and the Incarnation Episcopal Church, Washington, DC, Christmas Eve, 2009.
Of all the religions on the face of the earth—old, new, past, present—Christianity is the religion of incarnation. If you haven’t been hanging around churches lately, let me state that a little more forcefully. Christianity is definitely a religion about the body. Our central teachings and our practices center on embodiment. That is what that passage in Luke, so familiar to four hundred years of English speaking people, is about: a human body which was born to live, hunger, thirst, suffer, love, work, laugh, sleep, and die like any one of us. In a few minutes we shall gather around a table and share a meal in which we proclaim what he proclaimed—that a little chunk of bread is body, and a cup of wine is blood. And we go so far as to say that we who are gathered here doing all this are in fact a body. No not just “a” body, but the body of Christ.
It is good to remember that because it is the most readily forgotten thing in the Church. We got our start in the ancient world where a fair number of people distrusted the body. It was not all that uncommon to find around the time that Jesus was born a good number of people who believed sincerely that matter was evil or at least bad enough to be the enemy of spirit. If God was spirit, the last thing God would do would be to get mixed up with bodies. Some went so far as to suppose that the Most High God could not even have been the creator of the world, so they talked about a demi-urge, a being with responsibility for making the material world including human bodies. Some took the stories in the Hebrew Bible and interpreted the creation of man and woman—indeed the physical world as we know it—to be a result of a primal disobedience—sin, if you will—resulting in the awful fate that we have to live in a material world in material bodies.
But tonight we gather to celebrate the truth that all that is a gigantic lie. Matter is not bad because nothing that the Creator makes is bad. All of it is good. Bodies are not evil. Bodies are good, natural, even spectacular, however short-lived most of them are. And how do we know it? By the telling of a story that once upon a time a human body was born, fashioned in the depths of its mother to be the person who would completely reveal God to the rest of his fellow-creatures. We celebrate, we dance, we sing, we laugh because that body became the three-dimensional representation of a wedding of humanity and divinity, one person in which the fullness of God and the completeness of a human being dwelt in total harmony. We celebrate this feast decked out in green and red: the green reminding us that it is not just the human body but the great body of nature, the body of the whole universe that the Creator cherishes so; the red reminding us that the baby Mary bore came like all of us out of the birth canal all bloody, and would leave life in this world with the same body again all bloodied. We celebrate this feast because it is not just about that body, his body, but your body.
Four years ago this night, a body lay in a bed three states away from here, dying. It was a body I knew well, though strangely not as well as you might think. It belonged to my father. I came to church that Christmas Eve at 5:00. Some of you know that Linda Kaufman, one of our priests who has presided at that liturgy for years, tosses out a sheet in the middle of this space, proclaims it a stable. Children, some prepared with costumes and some unsuspecting, quickly volunteer to assume parts in the birth stories from Luke’s and Matthew’s gospels. Sometimes there can be up to three Marys. Frequently there are cows and sheep and a donkey. I sat in the pew that night, devoutly wishing not to be a part of anything. But no one volunteered to be Joseph. I felt it coming. Linda asked me, “Frank, would you be Joseph?” I wasn’t about to say no to her, not on Christmas Eve, though I really would have preferred to be a cow, if I had to be anything. So I got up in my collar and leather jacket and proceeded to act the part of Joseph. For a little while it took my mind off that bed in South Carolina and the trip I would be making the next day to see him one last time. I like Christmas pageants well enough, but I have never thought that they did a particularly good job in helping us get past romanticizing Christmas, if not trivializing it. I’ve seen one too many shepherds do shameless things to one another by hook or by crook, wondered too many times if the angels carrying candles would set themselves or the church on fire, wanted to brain some pubescent boys for chewing gum in the middle of the thing, seen one too many wise men trip over his oriental drag, heard my fill of snide comments about who is going to be the blue angel or the pink angel and how she only came to Sunday School beginning in late November so she could be in the pageant. So this time, thanks to Linda, I entered the story, there in my collar and leather jacket, espoused to one or two Marys, whom I could accompany for a few minutes. I was remarkably nervous about the whole thing, as I recall.
I think I got through all that fairly well, ultimately grateful that I could shelve for a few minutes my preoccupation with Daddy. Not until we were singing “Silent Night” did I feel something happen in my body. It started somewhere in my chest, a sensation that became a knot which lodged in my throat. I was singing the tenor line at about “holy infant so tender and mild” when tears sprang. My voice quavered and I fell silent on “sleep in heavenly peace.” That is what bodies do, you know. They register this stuff in ways that I can hardly imagine disembodied spirits being able to. They tense up, they choke, they cry, they get goosebumps. And they remember. I heard him singing, the way he used to sing when I was 8 or 10, his voice effortlessly sounding bell-clear. They say you can only think one thought at a time. But suddenly there was with my tears a multitude of memories. I saw my little girl of 10 years padding by me in her sock feet, an angel stately carrying her candle in the Christmas pageant for the first time. I was in the back seat of the1949 Chevrolet, looking at the giant electric Christmas card in lights on the International Paper Mill in Georgetown, with Daddy singing and whistling, “I’m dreaming of a White Christmas,” and Mama beside him purring approval. Christmases on the farm, staying up late wrapping presents for the children, walking into the rectory on Christmas Eve in Newtown inhaling the scent of cinnamon, seeing the mantle decked in fruit and evergreens, going with Aunt Myra to church and hearing “O Come, All Ye Faithful” for the first time: oh, the bodily life is exquisite!
Every memory that flashed through my mind was only possible because of this collection of bones and muscles and sinews and senses that I am. I can get myself into a good deal of trouble, sickness, and pain both with the body and with the mind that lives within it. But all these fleshly things like songs and scents and signs are part of the world that (Christmas says) God chose to inhabit. No doubt there are better worlds, where Peace is more than a slogan on a greeting card and where folks actually hush their noise and cease their strife to hear angels sing. But this is the world that we know. For better or worse, it’s home. And to live in it necessitates having a body, God knows. And it was such a body that the Holy Spirit chose in which to tabernacle, in which a baby was conceived and carried. And it was such a body, pierced at the first with straw and at the last with nails, in which was assumed the whole of human nature just so that what he is we might become.
Tonight we hear, of course, only a chapter in the story of God’s body. We shall hear others in due time. In just a little while on Ash Wednesday, we’ll remember that we bodies are but dust and to dust shall we return. We shall see shortly thereafter the Corpus Christi, the body of Christ, on the tree, suffering and dying reminding us that it was a very bodily death through which we find the door to life. We shall gaze on the body of the Risen Lord on Easter, marveling at the scars that betoken his pain and our healing. We shall look for the body we can no longer see on Ascension; and while we wonder where in heaven’s name he has gone, we’ll see as if in a mirror that that ascended and glorified body is right here on earth, with eyes and skin and breath and blood, in the form of a community that loves and serves and heals just the way Jesus did.
And she brought forth her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger. A tiny body. A holy body. Just like yours.
© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2009.